Kevin Mitnick, arguably the most notorious computer hacker in the world, walked out of the federal prison in Lompoc, Calif., on Friday after nearly five years behind bars. Under the terms of his probation, computers, cellular phones and virtually any other form of new communication technology will be off-limits to him for the next three years.
MITNICK, 36, who served four years, 11 months and six days in federal prison for invading computer systems at several high-tech companies, violating probation from an earlier conviction and fleeing authorities, was released shortly before 7 a.m., prison spokesman Mike Baca said.
In a statement outside the prison grounds, Mitnick took issue with his portrayal by prosecutors and in the media as a master computer criminal.
“My case was a case of curiosity,” he said. “I wanted to know as much as I could find out about how telephone networks work and the ins and outs of computer security. There ... (was) certainly no intent on my part to defraud anyone of anything.”
Mitnich planned to live with his father, Alan, in Westlake Village, north of Los Angeles.
Because of his history of breaking into computer systems and misusing cellular phones, U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer imposed strict conditions on Mitnick’s use of communications devices during his three years of probation.
TERMS OF PROBATION
Specifically, he is prohibited from possessing or using computer hardware, computer software, modems, computer-related equipment, laptop computers, personal information assistants, cellular telephones or televisions or other communications instruments that can be connected to the Internet or telecommunications networks, with the exception of a landline telephone.
He also is barred from working in the computer, computer software or telecommunications business - a provision that will likely prevent him from accepting several job offers proffered by computer security firms, according to his lawyers - or in any job where he has “access to computers or computer-related equipment or software.”
This final restriction is especially galling to Mitnick’s family and legions of mostly young, computer savvy supporters, many of whom believe that he has been severely punished by the government to set an example to other would-be “crackers” - the term preferred by computer hackers for those who use their knowledge for criminal purposes.
Taken literally, they say, it would prevent Mitnick from attending school or even working the front counter in a fast-food outlet, since nearly all cash registers are now computerized.
“He had wanted to further his education and work besides. However, the probation officers [who Mitnick’s mother talked to] said he would not be permitted to go to school and wouldn’t even be able to work in a 7-Eleven because of the computerized cash register,” Mitnick’s grandmother, Reba Vartanian, told MSNBC two days before his release.
‘WHAT IS A COMPUTER?’
Gregory Vinson, a lawyer who has worked with Mitnick attorney Donald Randolph on the case, said that under the restriction, “The question then becomes, ‘What is a computer?’ ”
“We asked the court to clarify, but the court declined to do so,” he said. “It’s going to fall to the probation department’s discretion. If he has reasonable probation officers and their superiors are reasonable, then he may be permitted to live a somewhat normal life. But from the way this case has been handled from the get-go, and the paranoia that surrounds Kevin Mitnick and what he is capable of doing with a computer, we don’t expect that they will necessarily be interpreted reasonably.”
But Christopher Painter, the assistant U.S. attorney who handled Mitnick’s case, said that while the U.S. Probation Office will make the final determination on what the convicted computer intruder can and can’t do, “It seems very, very, very unlikely that they would say working at a cash register is a problem. ... (Mitnick’s supporters) try to paint this as such a broad restriction that he has to be Luddite, but that’s not what the judge said.”
And Robert Latta, chief of the Los Angeles district of the probation office, said that even if Mitnick’s overseers adopted such an interpretation of the terms of Mitnick’s probation, “If we say ‘no’ and the family and counsel are pushing it, we would go to court with it for the judge to decide.”
Vinson, Mitnick’s lawyer, said his client has not yet decided how he will try to make ends meet and pay off the $4,125 in restitution he has been ordered to pay.
“I think he’ll take a little time to evaluate that,” he said. “A lot’s changed in the time he’s been in prison.”
EAGER TO TELL HIS STORY
It is clear, however, that Mitnick is eager to tell his side of a story that has been related many times by others, beginning in 1991 when he was a featured player in the book “Cyberpunk” by Katie Hafner and John Markoff. Markoff, a New York Times reporter, later wrote a second book, “Takedown,” which chronicled the hunt for and eventual capture of Mitnick after he violated probation and became a fugitive. The case also inspired several other books and a feature movie of “Takedown,” release of which apparently has been delayed by a defamation of character lawsuit filed by Mitnick.
Mitnick’s media onslaught will begin Sunday, when he will be seen on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” in a segment that was filmed last week in the Lompoc lockup.
In an advance glimpse of the interview offered by the network, Mitnick echoed his statement upon his release saying he did it for fun, never profit.
“I was an accomplished trespasser. I don’t consider myself a thief,” he said. “I copied without permission.”
He also recently gave a series of phone interviews to Forbes magazine for a piece that was published Thursday on the magazine’s Web site in which he accused Markoff and others in the media of portraying him as a monster.
“Markoff has single-handedly created ‘The Myth of Kevin Mitnick,’ which everyone is using to advance their own agendas,” he was quoted as saying. “… If I was some unknown hacker accused of copying programs from cell phone companies, I wouldn’t be here. Markoff’s printing false and defamatory material about me on the front page of The New York Times had a substantial effect on my case and reputation.”
He also said that his most recent stint in prison has made a law-abiding citizen of him.
“Once I get out of here and get on with the rest of my life, I’ll never intentionally violate the law,” he told Forbes.
Mitnick was captured in February 1995 by federal agents in North Carolina, with the assistance of computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura, after nearly 2 1/2 years on the run.
Prosecutors initially accused him in a 25-count indictment of causing an astonishing $80 million in damage by breaking into the computer networks of Motorola, Sun Microsystems, NEC and Novell, among others and stealing software, product plans and other data. The figure was arrived at by including research and development costs for the purloined data.
They also repeatedly argued against granting bail to Mitnick, charging that his technological wizardry posed a serious threat to the public.
Finally, under a plea bargain announced in March 1999, Mitnick stipulated that he caused $5 million to $10 million in damage while invading computers and was sentenced to another 10 months in jail.
A HERO TO MANY
His long wait in prison made him a hero and a martyr to other hackers who said his lengthy wait without a trial was an attempt to intimidate other would-be computer intruders.
“When you realize that you have to wait ... years for a trial, even if you’re innocent you’re going to plead guilty,” Eric Corley (also known as Emmanuel Goldstein), editor of 2600 - the Hacker’s Quarterly, told MSNBC last year.
The perception that Mitnick is being harshly treated by the government made his case a cause celebre among hackers and Internet libertarians.
There are numerous Web sites devoted to his legal battle and scores of Web sites have been altered by sympathetic attackers to include calls for his freedom, notably the New York Times Web site, and UNICEF and Yahoo! home pages.
But government attorneys have insisted all along that the case was a by-the-book prosecution of a repeat offender who just happened to be a notorious hacker.
“He was prosecuted because he violated the law,” said Painter, the assistant U.S. attorney. “… He violated a lot of laws.
“Is it true that computer hackers should think twice before violating the law? Yes, it is our position they always should do that. … But Kevin Mitnick is not being singled out.”
WON RIGHT TO USE LAPTOP
Because most big hacking cases have been settled prior to trial, Mitnick’s case had been expected to set numerous legal precedents. But despite repeated avowals through his attorney to take his case to trial, Mitnick agreed to the plea bargain nearly four years after he was jailed.
Still, Mitnick blazed a small legal trail by winning the right to use a laptop computer at the jail to review the mountain of electronic evidence the government has compiled against him - enough data to fill a library if it were printed out, Randolph said.
During numerous hearings on the matter, prosecutors urged Judge Pfaelzer to deny Mitnick access to a computer at the jail - even one without a modem - arguing that he could somehow use it to engineer an escape or otherwise compromise security at the jail. The judge sided with the prosecution during a series of hearings on the matter but reversed course in March 1998 and allowed Mitnick to review evidence on a laptop in the jail’s attorney-client conference room. The two sides then spent months wrangling over procedures for the review before Mitnick was allowed to begin poring over the computer files in January.
That was virtually Mitnick’s lone success in pretrial legal skirmishes.
Motions to set bail for him were rejected by the judge, who agreed with prosecutors that he was a flight risk and posed a danger to the public. The denial of bail was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Nor did the defense have any success in persuading Pfaelzer to allow the defendant access to encrypted files or “hacking tools” that prosecutors say were in his possession when he was arrested.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.